Van Deman, Esther (1862–1937)

views updated

Van Deman, Esther (1862–1937)

American archaeologist who was the first woman to perform field work. Born Esther Boise Van Deman on October 1, 1862, in South Salem, Ohio; died of cancer on May 3, 1937, in Rome, Italy; daughter of Joseph Van Deman (a farmer) and Martha (Millspaugh) Van Deman; University of Michigan, A.B., 1891, A.M., 1892; graduate work at Bryn Mawr College, 1892–93; University of Chicago, Ph.D., 1898.

Esther Van Deman was the first woman field archaeologist, and her studies on early Roman architecture formed the basis for all later work in the area. She was born in 1862 in South Salem, Ohio, the youngest of six children. Her parents, who farmed land her paternal grandfather had received in return for his services in the Revolutionary War, believed in the value of education. While attending the South Salem Academy, she exhibited a talent for music, and her parents encouraged study in this area, which she thought might be her future career. However, in the 1870s, the family moved to Sterling, Kansas, and lived with Van Deman's married sister. In 1887, at age 24, she entered the University of Michigan, where she first developed her interest in the classical world. Although she left after her first year and did not return until 1889, she earned an A.B. degree in 1891 and an A.M. in 1892.

Van Deman continued her studies but also taught college between 1892 and 1906. Although she was a good teacher and enjoyed classroom time with her students, she preferred research to the paperwork and rules involved in teaching, which caused occasional conflicts with college administrators. She did graduate work at Bryn Mawr College (1892–93), taught Latin at Wellesley College (1893–95) and at Bryn Mawr School in Baltimore (1895–96), and then began graduate school at the University of Chicago, receiving a Ph.D. in 1898. Following this, she taught Latin at Mt. Holyoke College for three years.

In 1901, Van Deman won a fellowship to the American School of Classical Studies in Rome, returning to the U.S. in 1903 to work as associate professor of Latin and archaeology at Goucher College. In 1906, she was appointed a fellow of the Carnegie Institution of Washington and returned to Rome. Joining the staff of the Carnegie Institution in 1910, Van Deman remained in Rome for the rest of her life (although she returned briefly to the United States prior to World War I when a nervous condition required a stay at a sanatorium). Then from 1924 to 1925, she was the Charles Eliot Norton lecturer at the Archaeological Institute of America. She also became the Carnegie research professor of Roman archaeology at the University of Michigan from 1925 to 1930. And in 1936, she accepted an honorary degree from that university.

Van Deman's study of Roman buildings started in 1907. While listening to a lecture and looking at the walls of the Atrium Vestae in Rome, she noticed a difference between the bricks sealing a doorway and those of the surrounding wall. Believing that the size and material of bricks could indicate when they were made, she turned to written sources from the period, which confirmed her theory that different bricks were used at different points in Roman history. She applied her dating method to many buildings and works and wrote about her findings in The Atrium Vestae (1909). Van Deman then studied Roman aqueducts, a subject that had been previously neglected, and spent years writing an exhaustively detailed monograph that she completed only two years before her death. She had planned to perfect her brick-based dating method, but realized that she would not have time for this, so she organized her notes to allow her colleague Marion E. Blake to continue the work after her death.

During the 30 years that Van Deman spent in Rome, she became the leading authority on ancient Roman building methods. With relatively little change, the methodology she set forth in "Methods of Determining the Date of Roman Concrete Monuments" in 1912 remains the standard. She became ill in 1936 and died of cancer on May 3, 1937. She was buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, where her grave site is marked by a mound of concrete and brick.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Kelly Winters , freelance writer

About this article

Van Deman, Esther (1862–1937)

Updated About content Print Article


Van Deman, Esther (1862–1937)